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Apple is expanding anti-theft measures to alert repair service providers when an iPhone being brought in for repair has been reported missing or stolen, instructing technicians to decline to repair such iPhones.
From an internal memo obtained by MacRumors, it appears that Apple has integrated the systems used by Apple-authorized repair technicians into the GSMA Device Registry. This means that Apple Stores and Apple Authorized Service Providers will be automatically alerted if an iPhone they’re about to perform service on has been reported as missing or stolen.
The GSMA Device Registry is a global database designed to help deter theft by blocking network access to mobile phones that have been reported as missing or stolen. End users don’t typically interact with the GSMA Device Registry; this is mainly managed by wireless carriers.
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For example, if your iPhone has been stolen, you would typically call your carrier to advise them of the theft so that you won’t be responsible for any charges that the thief may rack up. The carrier will, in turn, report your iPhone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number to the GSMA Device Registry.
The registry offers a GSMA Device Check service available to businesses such as resellers, insurance companies, law enforcement agencies, recyclers, and mobile network operators. These carriers will typically refuse to activate a phone or other device with an IMEI that appears in the registry.
Until now, however, Apple technicians haven’t had access to this database, which means it’s likely that in many cases, the Apple technicians have unknowingly performed repairs on stolen iPhones.
However, according to this latest memo, Apple technicians will now see “a message in their internal MobileGenius or GSX systems indicating that the device has been reported as missing.” If this happens, they are instructed to decline the repair, although it’s unclear how they’re supposed to communicate this refusal to the person bringing in the iPhone.
Better Late Than Never
It’s unclear why this hasn’t been Apple’s policy from the start. U.S. carriers have been implementing blocklisting services since late 2012, and in some countries, such as Australia, these national registries go back to 2003.
Although the GSMA’s global registry only came online a few years ago, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything that would have prevented Apple from using the blocklists maintained by some of its carrier partners, such as AT&T and T-Mobile.
Instead, Apple has taken a different approach to deter theft, introducing Activation Lock in 2013 with the release of iOS 7, which today remains tied to the Find My iPhone feature.
Activation Lock has proven successful in reducing iPhone thefts since it renders an iPhone effectively useless — at least to most casual thieves. Unfortunately, like any technological security measure, clever crooks have found ways to get around it.
Nevertheless, Apple already refuses to service any iPhone brought in with Find My iPhone enabled. Customers are required to deactivate the feature before having their iPhones serviced. This is partly to prove that they are the rightful owner of the iPhone, but it’s also necessary to allow Apple service technicians to do what they need to without knowing the user’s Apple ID password.
However, this new policy will help close the loop by allowing Apple technicians to refuse to repair phones that never had Find My iPhone enabled to begin with.
Will Apple Return a Stolen iPhone?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Apple wants to get involved in actually reuniting people with their lost or stolen iPhones. Technicians are being directed to decline the repair and presumably allow the person to leave the store unimpeded.
Apple likely wants to avoid putting its employees at risk, and there are also legal issues involved. Apple employees are not law enforcement officers and aren’t in a position to confiscate an iPhone merely because its IMEI number shows up as allegedly stolen.
Lastly, while the GSMA Device Registry does offer up to 10 years of device history, for obvious privacy reasons, this doesn’t include any personal information about the previous owner of the device. It’s mostly just a list of the wireless providers that the device has previously been activated on.
Even if a well-meaning Apple technician wanted to attempt to return an iPhone to its rightful owner, they would have no way of knowing who that is.
How You Can Check If an iPhone Is Stolen
Although the GSMA Device Registry isn’t open to consumers, the CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association) has offered a stolen phone checker since early 2017 that allows U.S. consumers to query up to five IMEI numbers per day.
The tool is provided to ensure that folks purchasing a second-hand iPhone or another smartphone can run a check on it to make sure that they’re not unknowingly acquiring stolen property.
Aside from the moral, ethical, and even legal issues of such a transaction, there’s also the practical fact that if an iPhone has been reported lost or stolen, there’s a good chance that the buyer will find themselves with a useless brick that can’t be activated on any wireless carrier networks. In the case of an iPhone, it also increases the likelihood that the device will have an Activation Lock on it.